This spring half term, we bundled our suitcases into the back of the car and drove for two hours to Harwich, in Essex. Our destination was Hook of Holland, where our Stena Line ferry was due to dock at eight o’clock in the morning. Then we’d drive for ten minutes to Strandpark Vlugtenburg, a seaside holiday park we’d booked through HolidayParkSpecials. Easy-peasy.
We sailed on the Hollandica, one of Stena Line’s two superferries that travel between Harwich and Hook of Holland. It’s the largest combined freight and passenger ferry in the world.
Aside from storms, the most common thing that turns a pleasant ferry crossing into a stressful experience is the embarkation. Stena Line’s check-in was an example of the former; there are only two crossings a day, so they can afford to get it right. Their night ferry sailed at 11pm, and you could embark from 8.30pm; we turned up at just past 8.00, and were surprised to see more than a dozen cars already queuing. The people in front of us clearly knew that 8.30 meant 8.30; then, once past the friendly, efficient check-in staff, you could have a leisurely dinner, get the kids to bed at a decent hour, or just chill out in one of the ship’s bars, all before the ferry set sail.
We dined in the Metropolitan, an a-la-carte restaurant. It was a decidedly upmarket place; the 3-course meal was 32 Euros, and you had to buy at least two courses, with varying prices per dish. Despite the genteel ambiance the waiters were friendly towards the kids, and people didn’t seem to mind our tabletop Lego-building session on the voyage home. Over 7s ate for half price, and there was a kids’ meal for under 6s, which cost 9.50 Euros.
The menu was a fusion of European dishes, with some Thai thrown in, as well as a hefty dose of Dutch stodge. The children had already eaten their tea, so for a special suppertime treat we allowed them to choose chocolate-covered Dutch pancakes as a main course (this seems to be common in the Netherlands), with ice cream for pudding. We were popular parents for that meal. There wasn’t a great deal for vegetarians on the menu; only one dish per course, but D said that his Risotto with green peas and asparagus was a cut above the norm.
On the outbound crossing, I chose bresaola-wrapped asparagus, which was lighter than it sounds. The asparagus had just the right amount of crunch and flavour. My main course, cod with bacon, mushrooms, potatoes and red wine sauce, was so hearty I opted for the ‘light’ alternative of ice cream for pudding. Ice cream with vodka-infused strawberries and berry coulis, that is. A most refreshing nightcap.
My favourite dish was the lobster soup, which I ate on the return crossing. Briney, meaty and with a tangy parmesan straw to buffer the dense flavour of the soup.
If you wanted something less sumptuous, there was also a cheaper buffet restaurant, which had more on offer for vegetarians.
Stena Line Hollandica’s entertainment theme was Curious George, the children’s TV show; a Curious George menu was on offer in the buffet restaurant, and the show was playing on the TV in the kids’ area.
On our daytime return crossing there were three films shown in the little cinema (one for over-12s, the rest generally suitable). But the on-board entertainer, Addrian, was the highlight for our kids. According to my Dutch writer friend Judith Kingston, he has been working on the line since she was a child. On a recent crossing, while he was entertaining her kids, she told him she used to enjoy his shows when she herself was little. He replied that he hoped he’d be around to make balloon animals for her grandchildren, too.
Addrian’s show lasted around an hour and was a spectacular combination of puppetry, Punch and Judy, magic tricks, and balloon-animal making. And it wasn’t just animals: Addrian concocted aliens, dinosaur hats, balloons with marbles inside, and a sausage dog filled with jelly sweets. Impressive antics, from a man who clearly took pride in his craft.
For older children, there was also a teens’ zone, with video games.
Sleeping in the cabin
If you want to create an exciting buzz at the start of a holiday, tell your kids they’ll be sleeping on a ferry. It was all ours could talk about for weeks before we went away. Despite a slight misgiving about the amount of sleep we’d actually get, the night went well; by the time we had dined, it was late enough for the children to be clamouring for sleep, and the rocking of the ship lulled us all through the night, until we woke to the sound of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ piped gently into the room at 6.30am ship’s time.
We stayed in a standard, outside cabin for four people. It was small but perfectly adequate for a night. I would choose to travel with the children this way again, rather than taking a long daytime journey. Either way it’s tiring; but if you sleep through most of the travel there’s no chance to get bored or crabby.
Here’s a very quick video tour of the cabin:
We were also given a cabin for our return daytime crossing. The crossing is seven hours long and although there were a variety of places to sit on the ferry, with a designated quiet zone, it was nice to be able to retire to our own private family space, chill out with the colouring sheets distributed by Addrian, and bid vaarwel to the Dutch shores from our porthole as we sailed along.
We took a return crossing from Harwich to Hook of Holland courtesy of Stena Line. Stena Line offers twice-daily, day and overnight crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Fares start from £49 one way for a car and driver. Additional adults’ cost starts from £14 and children (between four and 15 years old) from £7 one way. Foot passenger prices start from £34 per adult and £17 for children. Infants (under four years old) travel free of charge. Cabins start from £16 per person each way.
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